Big Cats and Where to See Them

The term “big cats” is typically used to refer to any of the five living members of the genus Panthera, namely the Lion, Leopard, ( African and Snow Leopard), Jaguar and the Tiger. Of which, all besides the snow leaoprd are famous for their ability to roar.

In addition to these Big Cats, we have decided to cover other loved cats of global interest; namely the African Leopard, Cheetah, Lynx and Cougar as well as the above mentioned ‘Big Cats’ due to an interest in visiting and encountering these cats in the wild.

There are 38 species of cats on the planet. Five of which, known as the big cats, are among the most beloved and recognizable animals on the planet.

Most big cats are members of the genus Panthera. Small and medium cats, including housecats, are member of FelisCheetahs, which do not have retractable claws, are in their own genus, called Acinonyx. 

Have we peaked your interest? If so, read ahead or jump to the headline of your favorite big cat!

The Best Places to See Big Cats

Lions

Leopards

Cheetah

Jaguar

Tiger

Lynx

Cougar/ Puma

Donations & Summary

The Best Places to See Big Cats

big cats locations

Big cats are found around the world in habitats as varied as mangrove swamps in India to wooded forests in the western U.S.

The Lion

The formidable alpha predator. Fabled and Fierce; Lions are big and strong. Male animals grow up to 2.5 metres long, about 1.2 metres high and weigh more than 200 kg. And like in most species of wild cats, females are smaller and lighter.

A lion in south africa; one of the big cats
Lifespan: 10 – 14 years (Adult, In the wild)
Family: Felidae
Speed: 80 km/h (Maximum, In Short Bursts)
Scientific name: Panthera leo
Diet: Carnivore
Mass: Male: 190 kg (Adult), Female: 130 kg (Adult)

Lions were perodically found in Europe too, but have long since become extinct in these regions. Now endemic to the extensive Africa Savanna and Gir national park of India. The population of lions have rapidly plummeted within the last century. Numbers of over 200 000 lions in the 1900s now stand at 20-30 000. A stark reminder of this can be demonstrated by the highest number of lions existing in captivity rather than their natural habitats. A sad reality. And therefore a an important reason to practice responsible, Eco tourism when encountering lions in the wild.

Today lions only live south of the Sahara in South and East Africa. They are in smaller populations in Angola, Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Central African Republic (Chad), Congo, Ivory Coast, Ethiopia, Gabon, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Malawi, Mali, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Somalia, South Africa, Sudan, Swaziland, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe. 

A small population of the subspecies Panthera leo goojratensis lives in the Indian protected area Gir.

Conservation Status

The species of lion has disappeared from its original range that was globally extensive to now exist at a 6th of that coverage. Today, the big cats roam approximately less than 1.7 million square kilometres of that total area. It is estimated that there are not even 25,000 lions left in Africa, catapulting them into a status of vulnerability on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List.

Where to see Lions in Africa:

We have found some of the most incredible destinations to set your sights on for lion safari in Africa!

Our Top Three Lion destinations In Africa: 

Safari in Africa, Kenya

Take a look for yourself!

#1 Serengeti National Park, Tanzania 

The annual migrations that take place in the oldest Tanzanian park, are the reason for the presence of wild cats that bring avid animal lovers from across the world to witness the remarkable spectacle that is guaranteed.

Tour Operators: 

#2 Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya 

Famed as the greatest destination to witness the Wildebeest migration, the Maasai Mara National reserve offers up a magnitude of natural wonder to bestow upon its guests, a home to many a pride of lions.

Tour Operators: 

#3 Okavango Delta, Botswana

The Okavango Delta is the largest inland delta in the world. It is also famous for its nature and wildlife sightings. It’s known for its sprawling, captivating grassy plains, which flood seasonally, becoming a lush animal habitat.

Tour Operators: 

Lion Walk: Can you really walk with big cats?

Are you looking for a lion walk? Walking with lions is definitely an experience of a lifetime. Read on if this is a dream of yours!

Walking with big cats; lions in Africa

We have found some of our favorite walking safari tours to experience! All highly recommended and safe to partake in.

  1. Volunteer Encounter (Antelope Park or Victoria Falls)
  2. Lion Encounter (Victoria Falls)
  3. Wildlife Encounter (Victoria Falls)
  4. Mauritius Attractions (Mauritius)
  5. Absolute Zambia Safaris
Lion cubs; big cats brother and sister

Walking with Lions truly can be an amazing experience, and when done practiced with caution ( a safe following distance, of course), it is beneficial to both the animal and tour group involved. Our recommendations are are chosen carefully according to research based on visitor ratings, sustainability aspects and quality of the tours. Is this something you would consider? If you’re not quite ready for a walking safari, there are ,many other safari options available to see lions in person.

Leopard

Leopards are graceful and powerful big cats closely related to lions, tigers, and jaguars. They live in sub-Saharan Africa, northeast Africa, Central Asia, India, and China. However, many of their populations are endangered, especially those located outside of Africa.

African leopard

Arguably one of the most elusive big cats to see, found throughout Africa and even compared and contrasted to the Jaguar of South America, who bares striking resemblance to the untrained eye.

Big cats: a leopard in asia
Speed: 58 km/h (Running)
Scientific name: Panthera pardus
Lifespan: 12 – 17 years
Family: Felidae
Mass: Male: 31 kg (South Africa’s coastal mountains population), Female: 23 – 27 kg (Somalia population)
Height: Male: 60 – 70 cm (Adult, At Shoulder), Female: 57 – 64 cm (Adult, At Shoulder)

Follow us on a tour through the continent where humans can see and spot Leopards – Africa!

Conservation

The loss of habitats, poaching and conflicts with farmers have all contributed to a decline in global numbers. Leopards have already disappeared from large parts of their original range, especially from North, East and West Africa, the Middle East, East and Southeast Asia. In southern Africa, too, stocks are declining. Although, there are many of the best places to see Leopards still in Africa.

Seeing a leopard is known to require a some luck and a little strategy. 

Leopards sightings are higher in the nighttime due to the cat’s nocturnal nature in most of their geographical range. However, location is just as important and therefore we have sought after some of the best and most likely destinations to spot the African leopard!

Have a look at some of our at Best Places to big cats and importantly, the leopard in Africa!

1. Kruger National Park, Sabi Sands Game and Madikwe, South Africa

Our top picking for highest probable sightings is the Sabi Sands Gae park which borders the Kruger National Park.

Londolozi, located in the Sabi Sand Private Reserve, makes up one of several areas with the highest density of leopard population – with more than 50 leopards living in an area of 100 square kilometres. Exciting right? We’re ready to set our sights on the Sabi Sands!

2. South Luangwa National Park, Zambia (Leopard Favorites)

The South Luangwa National Park in eastern Zambia, located in the breathtaking Luangwa Valley, is the southernmost of the three largest national parks in Zambia. The area is also known as the Valley of the Leopard – a suitable name as it has one of the highest leopard populations in Africa. If you’d like to read more about what the South Luangwa national Park has to offer you can visit our blog featuring the wildlife and nature of Zambia; a must-visit in one’s lifetime!

3. Maasai Mara and Samburu, Kenya

An already mentioned favorite of ours! Known for the numerous big cats attracted by the sheer number of wildebeests and zebras arriving at the northernmost point of their Great Migration journey.

Big cats; leopard in a tree

In summary, Africa offers an abundance of opportunities to spot the African leopard. We have only touched the tip of the iceberg. We hope we’ve inspired you to research further into the wonderful places, home to the leopard!

Snow Leopard:

It’s estimated that between 3,500 and 7,000 snow leopards exist in the wild, dispersed across 12 Central Asian countries. An indisputably breathtaking animal, the snow leopard is simply a privilege to see!

big cats; snow leopard in Europe

Snow leopards are very rare to spot in person! There are estimated to be very few of them left in the wild, spread over the highest altitudes of Central Asia, including the high Himalaya and the Tibetan plateau, but due to their nature it is difficult to obtain an accurate population count or track their movements.

Unfortunately they are subject to vulnerability, due to their changing habitats, and at risk from increased conflict with humans as their environment suffers due to climate change, and they encroach on urban areas, seeking food. They are also subject to poaching because their pelts are at high demand on the black markets.

Luckily, there exist amazing relief efforts to save them. Conservancy programs have been working to protect the snow leopard for many years, and it is now possible to support sustainable tourism that generates income for conservation. One can go on a snow leopard trek in Hemis National Park, Ladakh in search of this most mysterious of big cats.

The best places to see them:

#1 Hemis National Park, Ladakh, India

Hemis National Park is believed to have the world’s densest population of snow leopards. The park is home to a number of species of endangered mammals, including the snow leopard. The park is bounded on the north by the banks of the Indus River, and includes the catchments of Markha, Sumdah and Rumbak, and parts of the Zanskar Range.

Tour Operators

Before embarking on a trip to discover the snow leopard, make sure you are supporting responsible travel to ensure the rate of threat to the leopard is reduced.

Cheetah

The cheetah is a large cat, endemic to African savanna regions and central Iran. It is the fastest land animal, capable of running at 80 to 128 km/h, and as such has several adaptations for speed in its agile build.

cheetah family in savanna
Speed: 93 km/h (Maximum, In Short Bursts, Running)
Mass: 21 – 72 kg (Adult)
Scientific name: Acinonyx jubatus
Conservation status: Vulnerable (Population decreasing
Family: Felidae
Class: Mammalia
Height: 70 – 90 cm (Adult, At Shoulder) 

Cheetahs live in a variety of environments and can be located in dry forests, grasslands, open plains, and desert regions. Cheetahs once lived all across most of Africa, as well as in the Middle East and Indian subcontinent. Now, however their population has become restricted to small numbers in highly fragmented populations. 

Conservation

Only approximately 7000 cheetahs remain today. Almost half of these live in Southern Africa . Namibia has the world’s largest population, but the increasing conflict between cheetahs and farmers due to human encroachment on former wilderness areas for development and resource extraction which threatens the remaining population. Therefore Cheetahs are classified as endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

The best places to see cheetahs would be on a wildlife Safari in Africa. We’ve put together the top 3 places where you can see cheetahs in their natural habitat: Note it is very important to support only responsible tourism when encountering the highly threatened species.

#1 South Africa

There are many places where you can expect to see big cats like cheetahs in South Africa:

Kruger Park holds approximately 200 cheetahs, making sightings rare, but still possible as well as accommodating a range of other big cats and the big 5. It will therefore be all all round successful destination for big cat sightings!

#2 Botswana 

Botswana has many reserves, parks and open plains where you can find cheetahs in their natural habitat.

The Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park on the border between South Africa and Botswana offers one of the highest chances to see the Cheetah in action! This is mainly due to the park’s high cheetah population and having the ideal terrain.

#3 Kenya

Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve is without a doubt one of the best places to spot cheetahs in Africa. On our top lists for multiple animal sightings it seems! Don’t miss out on all that kenya has to offer it’s visitors!

Tour Operators:

cheetah cat

A special animal to see. The fasted wild cat but also Africa’s most endangered cat, therefore encounter with care and respect for this beautiful feline!

Jaguar

The jaguar has been a symbol of power, ferocity, and valor for centuries in South American culture and mythology; believed to be the embodiment of contempt.

Jaguar in South America
Mass: 56 – 96 kg (Adult)
Height: 63 – 76 cm (Adult, At Shoulder)
Conservation status: Near Threatened (Population decreasing) 
Scientific name: Panthera onca
Family: Felidae
Class: Mammalia

If you have ever wondered where to see this fabled and phenomenal big cat, we have the locations right here for you!

Jaguars exist in 18 countries in Latin America, from Mexico to Argentina. Despite this broad range, jaguars have been eradicated from 40 percent of their historic range and are extinct in Uruguay and El Salvador. While the rare individual has been spotted in the US, there has not been evidence of a breeding population in the US in more than 50 years.

Melanistic jaguar; the panther

Panthers : Did you know that jaguars and leopards can be “melanistic” in their coat coloring and when this occurs they may be known as panthers, black panthers. Panthers are more common than one would think! However they have evolved to be more elusive than the light colored jaguars due to their need for camouflage when hunting which is predominantly at night.

Conservation status

The jaguar is listed as “Near Threatened” IUCN Red List due to the damage done to their natural habitat that is subject to mass deforestation.

Jaguars often live near lakes, rivers and wetlands, and prefer to avoid open forests and grasslands. They are most common to the Pantanal wetlands of Brazil.

Best places to see Jaguars

Sightings of jaguars can be limited to National Parks, Sanctuaries & Reserves: of which, jaguars can be located in the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary , Belize, Peru’s Manú National Park , Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, Mexico, and Brazil’s Xingu National Park . We have covered a few of these locations below:

Big cats in the Amazon: Jaguar on river bank

The jaguar can be located throughout protected areas within this large range of South America:

#1 Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, Belize

Cockscomb is the world’s first reserve created specifically to protect jaguar. Designated in 1986, comprising of mostly tropical moist forest on the eastern slopes of the Maya Mountains in central Belize, Brazil.

#2 Caiman Ecological Reserve, southern Pantanal, Brazil

Though sightings are more common in the north, jaguars thrive through much of the Pantanal, 80% of which is in Brazil, the rest shared between Bolivia and Paraguay. Probably the highest possibility to sight jaguars here!

#3 Corcovado National Park, Costa Rica

Costa Rica is one of the world’s greenest countries, both literally and figuratively. This is because almost a quarter of its land is protected in national parks or private reserves, over half of its land is covered with trees, and it’s home to 5% of the Earth’s biodiversity. A beautiful destination to spot the jaguar!

Tour Operators

  1. Latin America natural World Safaris: Jaguar Safari In Brazil
  2. Tusk Photo Tours: Wildlife photography tours and Safaris
  3. Steppes Travel: Pantanal wetlands ( Brazil) holidays

Visit one of the best places to see jaguars that we have recommended. Embrace South American culture, biodiversity and wildlife in one trip of a lifetime!

Tiger

Valued as a symbolic icon of natural heritage. The tiger, one of the largest land mammals in the world, has always intrigued and amazed those lucky enough to encounter them in their natural habitat. The body length can vary between 2,5 and almost 3 meters in length, Making the tiger the largest of the big cats!

Bengal tiger; india
Lifespan: 10 – 15 years (In the wild)
Class: Mammalia
Family: Felidae
Kingdom: Animalia
Diet: Carnivore
Mass: Male: 90 – 310 kg (Adult), Female: 65 – 170 kg (Adult)

There are six subspecies of tigers: Most Commonly the Bengal Tiger/ most accessible and visited Tiger. 

Valued as a symbolic icon of natural heritage. The tiger, one of the largest land mammals in the world, has always intrigued and amazed those lucky enough to encounter their species in wildlife. The body length can vary between 2,5 and almost 3 meters in length.

Due to India holding the largest population of the sacred tiger, they have been at highest priority for the World Wildlife Fund ( WWF) India. In addition, Project Tiger was initiated in 1973 as a very important conservation program.

big cats: a tiger

To add, project Tiger has impressively been responsible for the formation of more than 25 reserves for tiger monitoring and conservation and has been credited for the increase in tiger population by almost three times the initial population. 

Where to see them

  1. Bandhavgarh National Park
  2. Ranthambore National Park
  3. Kanha National Park
  4. Jim Corbett National Park
  5. Satpura National Park: 

Tour Operators

Tiger Conservation

The tiger is endangered and in desperate need of funding for conservation relief efforts!

WWF-India’s work for tiger conservation aims to maintain and restore tiger habitats and critical corridors while protecting the tiger and its prey base in the tiger landscapes within India, eventually leading to an increase and stabilization in tiger populations across the country. Links down below for donations and adoption details!

Lynx

A nomadic, nocturnal and solitary animal: it is only socialized during the rutting season, in the first months of the year. They tend to hibernate until warmer temperatures can accommodate them and practice relatively nocturnal lifestyles.

A beautiful Lynx
Family: Felidae
Lifespan: Bobcat: 7 years
Scientific name: Lynx
Height: Eurasian lynx: 55 – 75 cm, Canada lynx: 48 – 56 cm, Iberian lynx: 60 – 70 cm
Mass: Bobcat: 8,6 kg, Eurasian lynx: 18 – 30 kg, Canada lynx: 8 – 11 kg, Iberian lynx: 13 kg
Length: Bobcat: 69 cm, Eurasian lynx: 80 – 130 cm, Canada lynx: 76 – 110 cm, Iberian lynx: 85 – 110 cm
 

Interesting facts

Interesting facts about the Lynx include: They can smell a rodent from 75 meters away and the origin of their name is derived from a Greek term meaning ‘bright eyes’. The Iberian lynx was established as a species some 1.8 million years ago in one of Europe’s main glacial refuges: the Iberian Peninsula.

It is, therefore, a jewel of the Iberian Mediterranean mountain. An evolutionary intrigue to study! Whereas, the Eurasian lynx is one of the most widespread cat species. Its European distribution area reached from the Pyrenees in a wide belt to the Ural Mountains at the, also predating modern era as an evolutionary sound species.

the lynx

Best Locations:

Parque Nacional y Natural de Doñana

Located in the southwest of Andalusia and mostly belonging to Huelva, this National Park includes the highest population density of Lynx in Spain. Transit for many migratory birds before flying to Africa. The area of Raya Real in Coto del Rey is a route through the vegetation of the Park.

You can visit its official website, where you will also find guided tours.

The Iberian experience

The Iberian Lynx experience, with “Untravelled Paths” offers a guided tour in the direction of Andalusia for 4 nights. 

The lynx is a beautiful animal worth seeing in the wild. The lynx lives can be known by some, as a lone wonder. The cat of prey, also called “brush ear” due to its appearance.

A beautiful cat to witness in its natural habitat. A feat of remarkable evolutionary resilience! We hope the species continues to adapt and evolve to exist for many more eras to come!

Cougar ( Puma)

The Cougar Puma concolor probably has as many different common names as they do  geographical regions: Puma, Mountain Lion, Florida Panther, Painter, Mexican Lion, Catamount and Red Tiger to mention only a few. Many sub species of the Cougar have previously been debated although now recent genetic studies have indicated that the current subspecies should be reduced to six.

Puma/ cougar in canada
Height: 60 – 90 cm (Adult, At Shoulder)
Speed: 64 – 80 km/h (Running)
Family: Felidae
Lifespan: 8 – 13 years (In the wild)
Scientific name: Puma concolor
Mass: Male: 53 – 100 kg (Adult), Female: 29 – 64 kg (Adult)
Length: Male: 2,4 m (Adult), Female: 2 m (Adult)

Cougar Facts 101: These cats are commonly called Puma in Latin America, and either Cougar or Mountain Lion in the north.  Because of their immense range, there is a wide variation in coat color, from a buff or sandy brown to reddish brown, through to a light silver and slate grey. The cats have a range from Central and South America to North America where they have been identified as smaller in size. They actually have the largest range of any native land mammal in the western hemisphere. Occurring from Canada south to Patagonia, and thriving in almost every type of habitat. That includes forests, high mountains, deserts and even urban settings!

Unfortunately the population size has decreased over the last century but optimistic estimates suggest there may now be as many as 30,000 individuals in the USA. 

Where to see Cougars?

They can be seen extensively but we have isolated two places with high density of population.

#1 Pumas in Torres del Paine National Park

The pumas of Patagonia are bolder than their northern counterparts, probably because they’ve been the top predators in this South American region for some 10,000 years. They take what they want – including thousands of sheep each year. As a result hundreds or even thousands fall victim to retaliatory killings by farmers, says Panthera’s Mark Elbroch, though the exact number of deaths is unknown. Hunting pumas is illegal on the Chilean side of the Andes, but there’s still a bounty on them in Argentina.

Panthera is launching a project in the region in the hope of mitigating the conflict. One factor in the pumas’ favour is that ecotourists will pay big money to see them, especially in the area around Chile’s spectacular Torres del Paine National Park, where sightings have become quite reliable.

#2 Vancouver Island

Vancouver Island, off the west coast of British Columbia, has North America’s highest mountain lion concentration. Look for tracks along the 5.6-mile stretch of the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail from Sombrio Beach to Parkinson Creek.

Cougar up close: beautiful big cats

Is the cougar an animal you would be interested to see?

Big Cat Donation

There exist many ways to actively participate in conservation efforts towards reducing threats to the wild & big cat habitats around the world. However during a pandemic state, donations are the easiest way to make a small, but valuable contribution, These are some of the organizations whose incredble work we follow…

Summary:

Have you fallen in love with the possibilities to witness this majesty of big cats in their natural environment? Follow our guides to breathtaking destinations that will launch you and your wildest dreams, across the globe, in search of encounters with all the big cats of the world!

Lioness in field: big cats

If you enjoyed this article about big cats but would like to read up individually about all the featured cats, you can have a look at our separate Lion, Leopard, Jaguar and Tiger blogs. Enjoy, and let us know what you think in the comment section below!

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